Free-floating Thoughts about Estonian Sociology

Mikko Lagerspetz

Estonian Institute of Humanities

Salme 12, Tallinn, Estonia


When I was asked to write about my views on Estonian sociology, I was told that one of the reasons why I should write is, that to a certain degree, I am an outsider in the Estonian sociological community. That refers to the fact, that I was born and educated in Turku, Finland. During my nine years’ stay in Estonia I have, of course, become quite familiar with Estonian society. Moreover, most of my research work has been directly dealing with it.

In some sense, I feel like an outsider also due to not being permanently employed by either of the two largest centres of social research - the University of Tartu, or the Institute of International and Social Studies, the latter previously part of the Academy of Sciences and now of the Tallinn Pedagogical University. (This implies by no means a total isolation from these institutions - I have the pleasant experience of having cooperated with, and having been employed by both universities.) At the same time, my work at the Estonian Institute of Humanities has brought me intellectual contacts outside the field of applied social research, and also given me the experience of working in Estonia without being part of the state-financed institutions. This experience of being outside, sometimes forgotten, is something that I believe that I share with most other people working for non-governmental organisations in Estonia, and thus makes me a part of a very topical object of research.

In fact, to be a complete outsider is quite hard. In order to become one, I should perhaps use this electronic space in the same way as did the author Sven Kivisildnik, who placed in the Internet a poem consisting of a list of his Estonian colleagues, most of them characterized by obscene epithets. I could give a list of Estonian sociologists, starting from the beginning of the alphabet... . But instead, I decided to avoid names in this text. Besides, Kivisildnik was afterwards accepted as member of the Estonian Writers’ Union, anyway. Obviously, even his method was not successful in making him an outsider.

Of course, to be "inside" and "outside" at the same time is, in addition for being an impossibility, also the situation generally recognized as the most fruitful one for a researching sociologist. That is, to be a part of the Mannheimian "free-floating" intelligentsia, claiming the capability and the mission to see more clearly than the other, slightly more mortal members of society. The clear-sightedness offered by distance is, in fact, one of the main attractions of comparative research (see Lagerspetz 1997).

One important thing to know about Estonian sociology is, that at least until a year or two ago, it was very hard to know anything about what the colleagues were working on. As I was told by one scholar in a major centre of social research, the person in question had no idea about what the people working in the room next door were doing research on. There was not, and there still is no journal or newsletter, that would keep the Estonian sociologists up-to-date in the development of their discipline in Estonia. Actually, the sociologists have not seemed to be very interested, either, in getting informed or informing others.

But I believe the situation is changing. Here, important factors are the changes in the financing of research, and the opening of communication with the international scientific community. Research is becoming both more competitive and more bureaucratically constrained. The principle "publish or perish", or the orderly procedures of applying for finances for a research project, were virtually unknown in the Soviet and early post-Soviet periods. Both these, nowadays familiar, traits of modern research work are essentially about creating and disseminating information, and thus, they can be instrumental in creating a more open scientific community. And this electronic newsletter is, of course, one further step in the same direction!

Much of the present day of Estonian sociology can not be understood without references to the Soviet period. The foundation of a sociological laboratory in Tartu during the "thaw" period of the 1960s, and its subsequent closing down by the authorities some years later is a memory still haunting the older generation; it is also one of the reasons for the presently small number of sociologists in their forties or late thirties. In later political hardships and conflicts also, controversies were created between social researchers; the lack of both possibilities and will for public discussion has kept some of the controversies alive until now. I think that an analogy with the much-discussed issue of post-Communist ethnic conflict is adequate. A well-known image used for explaining it is that of a "Pandora’s Box" - meaning that the "centuries-old ethnic controversies" were only temporarily suppressed by the authoritarian power, and after the political upheavals, they are set free again. I would, however, prefer a rather different image: That of a school-boy who forgets in the dressing room over weekend a plastic bag, with his sport clothes and a wet towel in it. It is the fact itself of having been closed, that has caused the awkward consequences, not vice versa.

Because of the critical potential of all social research, the Soviet authorities subjected sociology to close scrutiny. What resulted, was a strange mixture of "technical" data gathered for the needs of government; compulsory quotations from Marx, Lenin and Engels; and finally, potentially dangerous criticism hidden in the tables showing empirical results, visible for the initiated but invisible for the censor. What resulted, was an empirical tradition of quantitative social research, using often quite refined statistical tools, but without sufficient awareness of the theoretical traditions of sociology, and often failing to ask the most interesting questions and to verbally interpret the empirical results. This kind of approach was, mutatis mutandis, not very different from the Western "empiricism" criticised by C. Wright Mills (1959). I would say, that the mainstream of Estonian sociology still continues to work with a rather narrow repertoire of methods and background theories. (It would probably be useful for the social scientists to learn from the present theoretical and methodological alertness of, e.g., Estonian folklorists and literature theorists.)

I should stress, however, that the Estonian tradition of empirical social research, with its strive for methodological refinement has produced many impressive pieces of work - among them, e.g., a monumental longitudinal study on the cohort who completed their secondary education in 1983, and voluminous panel studies on values and life-styles, based on survey questionnaires. Estonian social researchers are more and more publishing their results in international contexts also, often as participants in comparative research projects.

Of course, Marx & Co. rarely occur among the references any more; but the same can, regrettably, be said about many others of the most profound social theorists. For those, who see sociology as a perspective of seeing and a way of asking, rather than as a set of methods, this kind of social research, despite its other merits, often lacks the something that would make it truly sociological.

A certain one-sidedness of this empiricist tradition may be further strengthened by the above-mentioned development in the financing of research. In spite of its several advantages, the principle of allocating research resources mainly through research projects may lead the scholars to concentrate on gathering such data, which is both obviously and immediately useful for the society (or, rather, for the state and the government). The foreign-financed comparative projects may be instrumental in enriching the methodology, but the research problems will be formulated outside Estonia. What is still needed, is a sociology which is autonomous, theoretically informed and self-confident enough to be able to define its goals and research problems itself.

But I may have been wrong. This text was deliberately provocative, to some degree at least. I hope that to be a way of creating discussion. Perhaps the sociology I have been looking for already exists in Estonia, but I just do not know about it.

I hope, that this newsletter will.


9 October, 1998


Mikko Lagerspetz (1997): "Piir kui peegel. Soome ja Eesti ühiskonna võrdleva uurimuse perspektiive". Vikerkaar 12/1997: 44-50 ("Border as a Mirror. Perspectives for Comparative Research on Finnish and Estonian Societies", in Estonian)

C. Wright Mills (1959): The Sociological Imagination. London etc.: Oxford UP